From the Sources

Ramban on Humans Created in the Image of God

Nachmanides on the Image of God

by Rabbi Mike Comins


In the below passage, the 13th century Torah commentator Nachmanides, the Ramban, shares his extraordinary view on tzelem Elohim, the image of God.  In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make the human in our image, after our likeness.”  The immediate problem is the plural language.  Who is God speaking to? Besides God, in whose likeness, at least in part, does God presumably create the human?

The second issue is that in our chapter, the verb bara (create) is used only when God is the subject, and only in two instances: the first act of creation (Genesis 1:1) and here, with regard to the human (1:27).  In the first instance God, it is reasoned by medieval, religious philosophers like Nachmanides, created the universe yesh m’ayin, that is, creatio ex nihilo, something from nothing.   (This is in opposition to the plain meaning of the text, where we meet an already created universe of tohu v’vohu, of chaos.  For various reasons, this was unacceptable to the philosophers.) Since the verb bara appears again with reference to the creation of the first human, many conclude that people, too, were created yesh m’ayin.  Not so, says Ramban.

The correct explanation of na’aseh (let us make) [which is in the plural form when it should have been in the singular] is as follows: It has been shown to you that G-d has created something from nothing only on the first day, and afterwards He formed and made things from those created elements. Thus when He gave the waters the power of bringing forth a living soul, the command concerning them was Let the waters swarm. The command concerning cattle was Let the earth bring forth. But in the case of man He said, Let us make, that is, I and the aforementioned earth, let us make man, the earth to bring forth the body from its elements as it did with cattle and beasts, as it is written, And the Eternal G-d formed man of the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7), and He, blessed be He, to give the spirit from His mouth, the Supreme One, as it is written, And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. And He said, In our image, and after our likeness, as man will then be similar to both. In the capacity of his body, he will be similar to the earth from which he was taken, and in spirit he will be similar to the higher beings, because it [the spirit] is not a body and will not die.


Rabbi Charles B. Chavel, Ramban: Commentary on the Torah, vol. 1, p. 52


According to Ramban, then, when God created the human b’tzelem, in God’s image, this includes both the tzelem of the “higher beings,” and the tzelem of the earth.  It can be argued that the tzelem of the earth is different from tzelem Elohim, the tzelem of God, but that would apply to the tzelem of the “higher beings” as well.  Since the text says that God created the human b’tzalmo, in “his” image, not “our” image, the best explanation is that the tzelem or image of the Divine that we humans embody is made up of both components, of both spirit and the earth!

While my own metaphysics does not entertain the strict separation of spirit and matter that medieval thinkers took for granted, I can only take heart from Nachmanides commentary.  For us humans, to be created in the image of God is to be created in the image of the earth; there is no difference.

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